Sounds like a riddle – or the first part of a not very good joke. In this case it is the question that goes with this picture.
This is a child’s shoe found in the stonework and mud filling of a building thought to be at least sixteenth century.
At first this seemed just a curious thing to find … then I did a little research. Shoes, it turns out, were often placed in the fabric of a building. Most usually near a door way or an opening (window, hearth) but not always, sometimes just placed there by the builder as they built the property.
The big question is ‘Why?’
Well there are many theories and I’ll pass on some that I have come across. To start with the concealed shoe, and it is nearly always just one, is always well worn and frequently that of a child. One theory is that a shoe takes on something of the identity of the person who wore it – as it moulds itself to the wearer. That this identity or ‘soul’ within the shoe was the used as a spirit to ward off evil in general and witches in particular.
The spirit within the shoe would therefore guard the house and keep evil and witches at bay. The concealed shoes were therefore either hidden in the walls of the building, so no-one could remove them, or boxed in near an opening (that a witch or evil might try to enter through).
When life and death, through accident or illness, was pretty random and struck seemingly at will, superstitions were rife. Here was a way to protect your home and therefore your family – and easy enough to do. Even for the builders who placed them there, perhaps it gave them a sense that the building they made was protected.
Where did this odd idea come from?
No-one knows how this tradition began but in the UK it may have links the 14th century Rector of Marston in Buckinghamshire, who was said to have cast the devil into a boot, thus trapping him, or it may go back much further than this and may be more grisly ….
There is a long and murky history of blood sacrifices, usually of animals, being made to protect a house from evil, documented from as far back as the Romans. Even the mark in blood made on the door post by the Israelites, when Moses was trying to get them released from servitude, that meant the angel of death passed over their homes, links into this superstition. Maybe a shoe is a simple and less drastic substitute.
Museum of shoes
In Northampton Museum, once the centre of shoe-making in the UK, they have a collection of shoes. They also keep a concealed shoe index listing all those found and reported to them. At the moment the index stands at approximately 1,900 entries from all over the U.K and also records concealed shoe finds in North America, Canada, and a number of countries in Europe including France, Spain and Poland.
As an author I can’t help but lock these nuggets of information away, wondering when they will resurface in the plot of a novel. Somehow I feel this one is going to with the superstition and history it has all wrapped up in it!
So the answer to the riddle ….. When is a shoe not just a shoe ….
…… when it is an insurance policy
Was the idea of concealed shoes new to you?
Have you ever found something like this?
What tickles your creative bones and makes you start to think and wonder?
Do share – you know I love to hear from you.